“Always remember,” my first-grade teacher said as she gestured to Constable Vallières, standing to her left in his crisp blue uniform, “the policeman is your friend.” The constable smiled and tapped the visor of his cap, and we all applauded appreciatively.
None of us doubted that for a moment; the police were the good guys. That certain knowledge was repeated constantly in popular culture, whether it was in the good-natured advice from Sesame Street or the glimpses of Adam-12 and Kojak that we snatched as our parents watched television after we were supposed to go to bed. The advice to “always ask a policeman if you get lost,” seemed like such sound counsel.
It seemed like a simpler time then; the policeman was your friend. And we were all Canadian, middle class and white. However, at almost the exact moment that Constable Vallières was smiling at the front of my class all those years ago, police in East Los Angeles were firing a volley into a crowd of peaceful Mexican-American demonstrators protesting police brutality. But we didn’t know about that, we only knew that the good constable was friendly and, on Sesame Street, Charlie the Muppet knew to find a policeman when he was lost, even if he didn’t recognize him as Uncle Louie in uniform.
Yet, in the midst of widespread demonstrations against police brutality inspired by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, the news and social media were saturated with stories that seemed to recall and reinforce the conventional wisdom of my childhood: “the policeman is your friend, he is really your friend, despite everything that you might believe, and despite the cause that you are marching for.”
It began last weekend, when the phalanx of police facing protesters in Ferguson, MO “took a knee” – that gesture of respectful protest forever associated with Colin Kaepernick. “Protesters demanding justice and change in the wake of the latest police killing of a Black man were joined in solidarity on Saturday by officers in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, a Black teen, was killed by police in 2014,” Huffington Post reported breathlessly. They were followed, over the next few days, by the police in Los Angeles, Fayetteville, Boston, and pretty much everywhere else in the country. In Atlanta, New York, and Denver, they embraced demonstrators and joined them in prayer.
These expressions of solidarity and respect resonated deeply, as a sign of hope. Just as Charlie the Muppet discovered that, under his cap, blue coat, and badge, the policeman was none other than his beloved Uncle Louie, Americans on both sides of the Thin Blue Line pointed to these “unprecedented incidents” as proof that, under his uniform, the policeman is a human being just like us. There seemed to be something profound in this revelation: That, despite the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, Michael Brown, and all the others, despite the tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, despite Martin Gugino’s cracked head, “the policeman is your friend.”
It is a lie.
There is nothing underneath the policeman’s uniform; he is his uniform. There is no person capable of spontaneous, human agency. One need only look at the rows upon rows of policemen in their uniforms, armed with truncheons and guns, wearing helmets and wielding shields, to see the unmistakable reality – that they are uniform, a single mass of interchangeable parts that only resemble human beings. A spontaneous human act is, by its very nature, both unexpected and individual, but the police stood in lockstep, knelt in lockstep… Uniformly.
Policemen taking a knee or embracing protestors is cause neither for celebration or hope, nor evidence of a shared humanity. When dons his uniform, and clips his sidearm to his belt, the policeman’s humanity disappears. He has no gender except the in the masculine power and violence that he deploys. He ceases to be a man or a woman, straight or queer, Black or white; he becomes featureless, faceless, devoid of individuality. He becomes a policeman.
The overwhelming social reality of the policeman’s uniform subsumes everything that might define his humanity – his hopes and dreams, his family, his aesthetic tastes. He is an instrument of order, an instrument of the social order and, above all, the instrument of those who rely upon and benefit from the social order. The policeman has virtually nothing to do with law, which presumes universality, the rule of law, and equality before the law. He has everything to do with order and enforcement, and he wears his blue uniform to inscribe the visible limits of human autonomy within that order, and the enforcement of the social order. The “thin blue line” is the boundary where human autonomy ceases to exist.
So, we must ask ourselves what the performances of “solidarity” and “shared humanity” that choked our news feeds all last week really mean.
They are both the promise of the policeman’s monopoly on violence and a threat of the random inevitability of that violence. At one moment, the policeman is gentle and respectful. Yet, he still wears his uniform, and his sidearm at his hip, indistinguishable from the battalion of uniforms standing at his side. At the next moment, he will beat you bloody, choke you with gas, kneel on your neck until you can no longer breathe; and these moments will change abruptly and without warning.
The policeman will kneel or embrace you to remind you that he is there, that the boundary circumscribing the social order always remains and, most importantly, that you have no say in where it lies. You are powerless. The implicit threat is that the instrument of order that embraces you now, which does not share your humanity, will destroy you at any moment – your humanity does not matter to him.
As we enter another week of protest and righteous anger, it behooves us all to remember this reality: The policeman who kneels, prays, or embraces you is a policeman. He is no different from the policeman who knelt on George Floyd’s neck, or the ones who looked on. He is not your friend.
Photos courtesy of CNN.